Learning is a lifelong process for writers, something that never stops. We learn when we read, and we learn when we write, but sometimes we learn by just…well, learning.
It occurred to me, only this morning, that the best things I’ve done, which inspired me to write more than anything else, involved learning something new about the craft.
For instance, I wrote my first book – and admittedly, with my wife’s urging all the way through – while trying to learn how to remove excessive speaker tags from dialog in fiction. The exercise was to develop three distinct character voices and dialog so they weren’t necessary.
The love of that exercise grew into the first “real” novel I’d written. (You know, where I actually had a plot and stuff.) And that process, despite the starts and stops, only took about three months. From August to November of 2007.
The next novel I wrote was when I learned to finally grasp the Three-Act Story Structure by breaking it up into the Four-Part Story Structure. When I learned what the five milestones were and where they need to go in the structure, I began to see that pattern in movies and TV shows, and to a lesser degree, in books. (I wasn’t reading a lot then, and when I did, I didn’t read analytically.)
That learning, coupled with reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, inspired me to write my own book Scales of Justice. I applied what I learned to the story – which began as a tiny vignette – and the writing went pretty quick. Just about three months. From July to late September of 2011, if memory serves. (I can’t be sure of the dates though.)
But then, I learned more about structure and variants of it. From 2011 all through 2012 and into this last year, the focus of my learning was on structure. I found The Hero’s Journey next, and loved it. I outlined a couple of book ideas with it, but before I got too far into that, I discovered Dramatica theory. And I applied those principles of structure and development to ideas, including existing ones.
What I discovered is, learning about structure initially inspired a book. Learning subsequent structures did not. In fact, they sort of hindered me, and I fell into a pattern of getting an idea with some nice scenes in mind, then developing a fairly complete outline and plan for the story trying to apply the power of Dramatica and its symmetrical division of story.
But the practice was clinical, not inspiring. I never wrote any of those books.
In March of this year, Dean Wesley Smith – the best writing “mentor” (he doesn’t know he’s mentoring me, so don’t tell him) I’ve ever met, showed his method for writing new stories. He called it Writing into the Dark, and he laid out the method on his blog in a series of amazing posts which later became a nonfiction book.
It opened my eyes, and when I sat down to write a new story using existing characters and a vague idea that had been running through my head for a couple of years (like, eight of ’em), I found I banged it out. Very quickly. In about…oh, say, three months. (And one week, but who’s counting?)
And I found it was the best book I’d ever written. It had a plot, good pacing, strong characterization…in short, it used everything I’d learned over the last seven or eight years, and I pulled it all together without a second thought.
Someone else might not think as highly of the book as I do, of course. But I loved the book, the story, the process, and the way my creativity flowed through me to the keyboard.
So this morning, I found myself thinking about what might cause me to want to write, to make it fun to write again, because things happened since I finished my last novel which indicated I hit a wall again. I don’t feel inspired to write, but “real” writers don’t always feel inspired. They write anyway. Having an outline helps many get going. Some, like Dean Wesley Smith, don’t need one at all. And for me? Well, I found they hurt my creativity when I make them. So there’s something there.
But the learning is key for me. It’s another indicator of how critical the lifelong learning process is. We’re never masters of the craft. We can learn to be great storytellers, but there’s always more we can learn.
And that learning, I’ve found for me, is the greatest source of inspiration I’ve encountered on my writer’s journey.
At least so far.